Why Won’t the U.S. Ratify the CEDAW Human Rights Treaty?

Only a Handful of Nations Have Not Adopted This U.N. Agreement

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The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is a United Nations treaty that focuses on women's rights and women's issues worldwide. It is both an international bill of rights for women and an agenda of action. Originally adopted by the U.N. in 1979, nearly all member nations have ratified the document. Conspicuously absent is the United States, which has never formally done so.

What Is the CEDAW?

Countries that ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women agree to take concrete steps to improve the status of women and end discrimination and violence against women. The agreement focuses on three key areas. Within each area, specific provisions are outlined. As envisioned by the U.N., the CEDAW is an action plan that requires ratifying nations to eventually achieve full compliance.

Civil Rights: Included are the rights to vote, to hold public office and to exercise public functions; rights to non-discrimination in education, employment and economic and social activities; equality of women in civil and business matters; and equal rights with regard to choice of spouse, parenthood, personal rights and command over property.

Reproductive Rights: Included are provisions for fully shared responsibility for child-rearing by both sexes; the rights of maternity protection and child-care including mandated child-care facilities and maternity leave; and the right to reproductive choice and family planning.

Gender Relations: The convention requires ratifying nations to modify social and cultural patterns to eliminate gender prejudices and bias; revise textbooks, school programs and teaching methods to remove gender stereotypes within the educational system; and address modes of behavior and thought which define the public realm as a man's world and the home as a woman's, thereby affirming that both genders have equal responsibilities in family life and equal rights regarding education and employment.

Countries that ratify the agreement are expected to work toward implementing the convention's provisions. Every four years each nation must submit a report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. A panel of 23 CEDAW board members reviews these reports and recommends areas requiring further action.

History of the CEDAW

When the United Nations was founded in 1945, the cause of universal human rights was enshrined in its charter. A year later, the body created the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to address women's issues and discrimination. In 1963, the U.N. asked the CSW to prepare a declaration that would consolidate all international standards regarding equal rights between the sexes.

The CSW produced a Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1967, but this agreement was only a statement of political intent rather than a binding treaty. Five years later, in 1972, the General Assembly asked the CSW to draft a binding treaty. The result was the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. 


CEDAW was adopted by the General Assembly on Dec. 18, 1979. It took legal effect in 1981 after it had been ratified by 20 member states, faster than any previous convention in U.N. history. As of February 2018, nearly all of the U.N.'s 193 member states have ratified the agreement. Among the few that have not are Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and the United States.

Support for CEDAW is widespread—97% of the world's countries have ratified it. Ratification rates of are higher in democratic and communist countries, but lower in Islamic nations. However, CEDAW is also one of the most highly reserved: roughly one-third of the ratifications come with reservations. In particular, predominantly Muslim countries are prone to modifying their commitments to CEDAW's rules.

Reservations are not necessarily restrictive to women's rights, and in some cases they seem to improve CEDAW's effectiveness, because the governments writing them are taking the CEDAW seriously. 

The U.S and CEDAW

The United States was one of the first signatories of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women when it was adopted by the U.N. in 1979. A year later, President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty and sent it to the Senate for ratification. But Carter, in the final year of his presidency, did not have the political leverage to get senators to act on the measure.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is charged with ratifying treaties and international agreements, has debated CEDAW five times since 1980. In 1994, for instance, the Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on CEDAW and recommended it be ratified. But North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, a leading conservative and longtime CEDAW opponent, used his seniority to block the measure from going to the full Senate. Similar debates in 2002 and 2010 also failed to advance the treaty.

In all instances, opposition to CEDAW has come primarily from conservative politicians and religious leaders, who argue that the treaty is at best unnecessary and at worst subjects the U.S. to the whims of an international agency. Other opponents have cited CEDAW's advocacy of reproductive rights and enforcement of gender-neutral work rules.


Despite support in the U.S. from powerful legislators such as Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, CEDAW is unlikely to be ratified by the Senate anytime soon. Both supporters like the League of Women Voters and AARP and opponents like Concerned Women for America continue to debate the treaty. And the United Nations actively promotes the CEDAW agenda through outreach programs and social media. 


View Article Sources
  1. Cole, Wade M. "Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw)." The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies. Eds. Naples, Nancy A., et al.2016. 1–3. 10.1002/9781118663219.wbegss274

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Lowen, Linda. "Why Won’t the U.S. Ratify the CEDAW Human Rights Treaty?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/why-wont-u-s-ratify-cedaw-3533824. Lowen, Linda. (2021, February 16). Why Won’t the U.S. Ratify the CEDAW Human Rights Treaty? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-wont-u-s-ratify-cedaw-3533824 Lowen, Linda. "Why Won’t the U.S. Ratify the CEDAW Human Rights Treaty?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-wont-u-s-ratify-cedaw-3533824 (accessed March 20, 2023).